Claims of a possible deal that could have saved the lives of up to six republican hunger strikers have been rubbished by former Sinn Féin director of publicity Danny Morrison.
Several documents released by the British government under the Freedom of Information Act appear to contain discussion of a deal offered to the IRA shortly before hunger striker Joe McDonnell died on July 8 1981.
However, Mr Morrison said a close reading of the documents showed “that the British government did not want a settlement on terms acceptable to the prisoners and that they played along with the delegation from the Irish Commission for Justice and Peace”.
In 2005, former prisoner Richard O’Rawe, a publicity officer for the hunger strikers in 1981, published an account of what he said was a deal sanctioned by Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s prime minister at the time.
The alleged deal suggested an agreement could be reached at least on clothes, association and remission - three of the prisoners’ five demands.
However, Mr Morrison said Mr O’Rawe had confused details of an offer with a deal.
“It has been known for decades that the republican movement and the British were in contact in July 1981 during the Hunger Strike,” he said.
Mr Morrison said the hunger strikers wanted a British government representative to stand over its offer.
He said that the offer “fell short of the five demands but whether it would have been enough to end the hunger strike was never put to the test because the British refused to meet the hunger strikers and stand over their offer. So there was never a deal.”
Mr Morrison also accused the British government of “withholding one or two particular documents” in a “deliberate and mischievous” way.
“Among the documents still being withheld by the British are the one whose contents were delivered verbally through an intermediary on July 5 and which I delivered verbally to the hunger strikers and Brendan McFarlane; and the one which the British rewrote hours before Joe McDonnell died on July 8 but which neither we nor the hunger strikers were given,” he said.
“They rewrote it, according to the newly released material, to alter its tone in response to a request, they say, by the republican movement.
“Crucially, if we accept this document then it indicates a republican movement anxious to settle, not prolong the hunger strike.”
Oliver Hughes - brother of Francis Hughes, who died on hunger strike on May 12 1981 - said the claims had caused “more pain and distress” to his family.
“We came through that terrible year of 1981 and all the years afterwards supported by our memory of Francis, a young Irishman of whom we remain very, very proud,” he said.
“In recent years we have read various accounts of the Hunger Strike and talk of negotiations and offers.
“We know who it was that took away special category status, who it was beat the prisoners, who it was caused the hunger strike and refused to do a deal which at the time would have saved lives.”
A Sinn Féin spokesman said an interview recently published by the Bobby Sands Trust showed that the British government had not wanted to agree a deal.
In the 1986 interview, John Blelloch, a member of MI5 who had been seconded to the British government’s Northern Ireland Office as a deputy secretary at the time of the 1980 and 1981 hunger strikes, said: “There was absolutely no change in the government’s position”.
However, the first IRA hunger striker to speak about the controversy has called for the full facts of the initiative to be made public.
Gerard Hodgkins, who spent 20 days on hunger strike in 1981, has demanded that Sinn Féin, the British government and others make public all records relating to the era.
Mr Hodgkins said he believed the group which was working with the hunger strikers -- and which included Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams -- may have allowed the protest to continue for political purposes.
If this was the case, Mr Hodgkins said he understood why they did so but would not have agreed.
He said the Sinn Féin leadership should release all information about the Hunger Strike.
“This has become a festering sore in the republican family,” he said.